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Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 | Just after starting high school, Lance Rogers was told he wouldn’t earn an ordinary diploma. He struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities, and had trouble focusing in big classes at Point Loma High School.

Instead he took special education classes that were smaller and easier, but wouldn’t help him earn a degree. His mother Ruth Rogers hoped he would flourish there, even if he was “non-diploma bound.” It is a label given to thousands of San Diego Unified students with disabilities who focus on skills that will help them live independently instead of prepping for college or beyond, studying shopping lists and sales tax instead of calculus or Cervantes.

But Lance Rogers grew depressed and bored in those classes. He can’t remember what he learned — only that he was often asked to draw pictures or maps — and ultimately ditched school.

“I was downhearted,” said Lance Rogers, now 16 years old. “I didn’t do my work, because what was the point of doing it? I didn’t get any credit. So I didn’t go to school.”

Yet when the Rogers family moved to Texas, their son thrived in a school with a mixture of small classes and counseling. His grades rose from Ds to Bs. And when the family returned to San Diego, teachers at another school said Lance Rogers was perfectly capable of earning a diploma.

“I was blown away,” Ruth Rogers said. “I was shocked that he was in the classroom, doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

Stories like his raise questions about whether San Diego Unified has wrongly tagged some students with disabilities, deeming them unlikely to earn an ordinary diploma. Newly released data show that roughly 13 percent of disabled children in San Diego Unified have been marked as “non-diploma bound,” some as early as first grade. Some have mental retardation or severe autism; others live with learning disabilities or orthopedic impairments.

Many families have no problem with the label, saying that a diploma is a distant dream for their children. Focusing on basic routines makes more sense to them than coaching their children to pass the high school exit exam. Others complain about premature or sloppy labeling that denies their children the opportunity to achieve by tracking them into non-academic classes. Harvard University researcher Thomas Hehir called the frequency of the practice in San Diego Unified “disconcerting” and “very questionable,” and linked the phenomenon to stagnating test scores among students with disabilities.

“You decide early on that kids are not capable,” said Hehir, who consults San Diego Unified on its special education programs and wrote an extensive report on its problems last year. “… If you don’t assume they can read, you don’t teach them to read.”

Special education has been an Achilles heel for San Diego Unified when it comes to standardized testing. It has missed targets under No Child Left Behind due in part to underachievement among students with disabilities. Their scores have scarcely budged while their peers without disabilities surged higher and higher, widening the gap between the able and the less able in classrooms.

No educator means to shortchange children with disabilities, but an overburdened and underfunded system causes mistakes when diagnosing and placing children in classes, said parent Joyce Clark, chairwoman of a San Diego Unified committee on special education. Clark said some children are funneled into easier classes instead of making ordinary classes accessible through technology or other aids.

“Teachers are wonderful but they get weary of trying to address all the needs they are asked to do,” Clark said. “And somehow they just fall through the cracks.”

Educators and families decide jointly whether a student is headed for a diploma while creating individualized plans for their schooling. Such plans are legally binding and outline what services and supports a student is supposed to receive. Instead of being groomed for college, children who are non-diploma bound are taught skills to live more independently, said Arun Ramanathan, chief student services officer. Instead of a diploma, they usually earn a “letter of recognition” for meeting goals set by their educators and families.

That makes sense for a small fraction of older students with significant cognitive impairments, such as severe mental retardation, Hehir said. But he and Ramanathan believe the label has been overused, branding too many children too easily and too early.

Data released in September by the school district show that more than 2,200 of the roughly 16,400 children with disabilities in San Diego Unified are non-diploma bound. Dozens of middle schoolers with learning disabilities have been deemed unlikely to get diplomas, along with dozens of even younger children with speech impairments. Such early labeling is unnecessary under federal law, which doesn’t require educators and families to plan what a student could do after high school until he or she turns 16.

“It’s an atrocity if we’re deciding in 3rd or 4th grade that [students] won’t have access to a regular diploma,” said Laura Kaloi, public policy director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “You’re predetermining the outcomes for students who should have every opportunity to learn and succeed.”

Some parents are confused by the process and may agree to divert their children from a diploma despite their misgivings or uncertainty, Clark said. Ruth Rogers said she knew little about what “non-diploma” meant and just wanted smaller classes for her son. But others agree that a diploma is out of reach for their child, and decide to focus on everyday skills instead.

More than one-fourth of non-diploma bound students are diagnosed with mental retardation; another one-sixth are categorized as autistic. One such student is Alex McRee, a gentle senior at Mission Bay High School who lives with severe autism and a seizure disorder. He does not speak or write, though he sometimes flashes an impish smile when he misbehaves; he likes to tear paper and play with string. His mother jokes that if there were no electric shredders, he would have a perfect job.

Putting McRee in an algebra class or other academic classes seems unthinkable to Janice Yuwiler, whose hopes for her son are more modest: the ability to communicate when he needs to use the restroom or open a granola bar by himself.

“Maybe I’m shortchanging him,” Yuwiler said. “Maybe he would have absorbed information through his pores (in a chemistry class). But it seemed like he’d just drift off to sleep.”

Teachers call the classes that McRee and other severely disabled students take “functional” instead of academic. They teach basic skills and do not count toward an ordinary diploma. Such classes are common at the Whittier Center, a tiny, specialized school in San Diego Unified for students who cannot be accommodated at ordinary public schools. At Whittier, children with traumatic brain injuries, severe mental retardation and a wide range of other disabilities learn to search newspapers for jobs, calculate sales tax when shopping, and write simple letters in small groups. Even schoolyard games are a lesson.

“It’s important for them to be able to take turns,” said Principal Cathie Whitley, watching a cluster of students bouncing a rubber ball against a wall. “To lose.”

As teenagers they explain their goals for after high school in PowerPoint presentations for their families and Whittier teachers. One talkative boy with autism wrote that he wants to go to culinary school, be financially independent and share an apartment with a roommate. He wants to get a letter of recognition when high school ends, then earn a GED afterward. Whitley said more and more Whittier students are taking that path.

“Maybe they won’t earn a diploma in four years,” Whitley said. “But increasingly we’re looking at our students and saying, maybe it is realistic for them to earn a diploma. Even if it takes longer.”

That road is much harder if a student has been learning life skills exclusively and has no usable credits. Trying to earn a diploma after being labeled “non-diploma bound” means catching up on algebra and gearing up for the high school exit exam after spending months, perhaps years, taking classes that don’t count towards a diploma.

One San Diego educator who regularly coaches students with disabilities to finish their diplomas, Jill Prier, is currently aiding a student who had taken functional classes for most of her school career after being diagnosed with mental retardation, and “all of a sudden wanted a diploma.”

“She’s carrying on a job at a clothing store. She doesn’t present like a developmentally delayed kid,” Prier said. “But she reads at a third grade level. … She had no credits that were of value. It’s going to take her at least three years.”

Prier has already helped more than 20 adult students with disabilities graduate last spring with diplomas. Graduation rates for students with disabilities have grown nationwide over the past decade, with nearly 57 percent of special education students earning ordinary diplomas in 2006, according to a 2008 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Fifteen percent earned a certificate or other document that falls short of a diploma, which gives them limited opportunities for jobs and higher education. Most colleges and universities only accept diplomas and many employers require them. Individual states differ dramatically in the percentage of disabled students who get diplomas versus certificates, throwing doubt on whether the numbers reflect the genuine abilities of the students.

As graduation rates have grown, brain research has shown the risks of underestimating children with disabilities, even those with severe conditions that prevent them from speaking, said Anne M. Donnellan, director of the Autism Institute at University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. Donnellan has seen a number of nonverbal students such as Peyton Goddard overcome diagnoses of mental retardation and graduate from college.

Hehir likewise noted that diagnoses are sometimes wrong and students should be given the benefit of the doubt. For instance, conventional wisdom that students with Down Syndrome couldn’t learn to read has been shattered as many prove themselves capable of reading and writing as well.

“I’m not interested in predicting what people can do,” Donnellan said. “We’ve made some terrible mistakes with that.”

Lance Rogers believes he was a victim of those mistakes. Now a sophomore at the Marcy School, a San Diego Unified center that combines classes and counseling, Rogers said he’s taking algebra, chemistry and history to earn the diploma he once was blocked from.

By pursuing a diploma, “I did something they didn’t think I was going to accomplish,” he said. “They didn’t say it like that. But that’s what it comes down to.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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